Flash academy design slated

1st April 2005 at 01:00
Costly school buildings by Norman Foster et al may look stylish - but are they practical? Jon Slater reports

Academies designed by Britain's best-known architects as part of ministers'

multi-billion pound drive to improve inner-city education are often unsuitable for their purpose, a top government adviser has warned.

The buildings are too small for the expected number of pupils and the "unremitting concrete and glass" structures amplify pupils' noise, said Tim Brighouse, chief adviser to London schools Professor Brighouse said the new schools were strong on style but weak on substance, with some squeezed on to "postage stamp sites". He said one academy, which he refused to name but was designed by Norman Foster, "reminds one of nothing so much as an American penitentiary".

His comments come at a sensitive time for ministers who are hoping to convince that the billions they have given to public services have been well-spent.

The academy scheme has received the personal backing of the Prime Minister.

The TES revealed last year that ambitious designs, rising land prices and construction charges had pushed up the average cost of academies to more than pound;25 million each.

Ministers have promised that by 2016, major rebuilding work will have begun in at least three secondaries in every authority.

Writing in the latest issue of the magazine SecEd, Professor Brighouse praised the Government for its commitment to improving secondary buildings through its Building Schools for the Future programme.

But he said: "The common feature is that education takes what is left. The property developers take the cream and the profit, including large former sites of secondary schools, and the educators take the leftovers."

The proposed academy at Mary Magdalene primary, Islington, north London, is expected to house more than 1,400 pupils of all ages where now it holds "just comfortably" 210, he said.

And teachers at Mossbourne academy in Hackney, east London, fear its Pounds 30m, Richard Rogers-designed building, opened by Tony Blair last month, will not be able to cope with the 900 pupils it is supposed to accommodate.

Graham Cox, vice-principal of Mossbourne, said architects did not always appreciate how much space pupils needed.

"We have just Year 7s here now, but they will grow. The 16-year-olds will be much bigger and these classrooms will not be able to hold more than 20 or so pupils. With the furniture and computers included, it will be even less."

However, parents seem to have embraced the new academies.

Figures released this week by the Academy Sponsors Trust show that Mossbourne is heavily oversubscribed. Last September the number of applicants who named the school as their first choice exceeded the number of places by a ratio of 3 to 1. Nationally, 4,730 children named academies as their first-choice school for 2004-5. They were competing for 2,918 places.

Rona Kiley, chief executive of the trust, said: "These figures clearly demonstrate the popularity of academies."

Philip O'Hear, principal of Capital City academy in Brent, north London, is proud of his school's new facilities, which he described as "amazing". "You can see anywhere what is going on," he said.

He added: "Some of the money has gone into making it look fantastic rather than into equipment. I might have altered the balance."

In a Teachers' TV documentary shown last night, he acknowledged that buildings alone would not be enough to raise standards: "There is a risk that all this money will go in and nothing much will change because buildings don't make a school. It's the people who make the school."

A spokesman for the Richard Rogers Partnership said: "We designed the school (Mossbourne) around DfES requirements and followed them to the letter. There may be an issue as to whether those requirements are as thought-through as they might be."

In addition, its popularity had led the school to increase class sizes from the 25 first envisaged.

* jon.slater@tes.co.uk

Platform 17, leader 18 teachers' TV listings 48

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